Artificial Intelligence May Have Cracked the Code of the Voynich Manuscript: Has Modern Technology Finally Solved a Medieval Mystery?

What is it about the Voynich Manuscript—that cryptic, illustrated 15th century text of unknown origin and meaning—that has so fascinated and obsessed scholars for centuries? Written in what appears to be an invented language, with bizarre illustrations of otherworldly botany, mysterious cosmology, and strange anatomy, the book resembles other proto-scientific texts of the time, except for the fact that it is totally indecipherable, “a certain riddle of the Sphinx,” as one alchemist described it. The 240-page enigma inspires attempt after attempt by cryptologists, linguists, and historians eager to understand its secrets—that is if it doesn’t turn out to be a too-clever Medieval joke.

One recent try, by Nicholas Gibbs, has perhaps not lived up to the hype. Another recent attempt by Stephen Bax, who wrote the short TED Ed lesson above, has also come in for its share of criticism. Given the investment of scholars since the 17th century in cracking the Voynich code, both of these efforts might justifiably be called quite optimistic. The Voynich may forever elude human understanding, though it was, presumably, created by human hands. Perhaps it will take a machine to finally solve the puzzle, an artificial brain that can process more data than the combined efforts of every scholar who has ever applied their talents to the text. Computer scientists at the University of Alberta think so and claim to have cracked the Voynich code with artificial intelligence (AI).

Computer science professor Greg Kondrak and graduate student Bradley Hauer began their project by feeding a computer program 400 different languages, taken from the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” While “they initially hypothesized that the Voynich manuscript was written in [ancient] Arabic,” reports Jennifer Pascoe, “it turned out that the most likely language was [ancient] Hebrew.” (Previous guesses, the CBC notes, “have ranged from a type of Latin to a derivation of Sino-Tibetan.”) The next step involved deciphering the manuscript’s code. Kondrak and Hauer discovered that “the letters in each word… had been reordered. Vowels had been dropped.” The theory seemed promising, but the pair were unable to find any Hebrew scholars who would look at their findings.

Without human expertise to guide them, they turned to another AI, whose results, we know, can be notoriously unreliable. Nonetheless, feeding the first sentence into Google translate yielded the following: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.” It’s at least grammatical, though Kondrak admits “it’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript.” Other analyses of the first section have turned up several other words, such as “farmer,” “light,” “air,” and “fire”—indeed the scientists have found 80 percent of the manuscript's words in ancient Hebrew dictionaries. Figuring out how they fit together in a comprehensible syntax has proven much more difficult. Kondrak and Hauer admit these results are tentative, and may be wrong. Without corroboration from Hebrew experts, they are also unlikely to be taken very seriously by the scholarly community.

But the primary goal was not to translate the Voynich but to use it as a means of creating algorithms that could decipher ancient languages. “Importantly,” notes Gizmodo, “the researchers aren’t saying they’ve deciphered the entire Voynich manuscript,” far from it. But they might have discovered the keys that others may use to do so. Or they may—as have so many others—have been led down another blind alley, as one commenter at IFL Science suggests, sarcastically quoting the wise Bullwinkle Moose: “This time for sure!”

You can find the Voynich Manuscript scanned at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Copies can be purchased in book format as well.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Carl Sagan’s Syllabus & Final Exam for His Course on Critical Thinking (Cornell, 1986)

Though now more than twenty years gone, Carl Sagan, through his many books and his classic television series Cosmoscontinues to teach us all he knew about life, the universe, and everything. Three decades' worth of students will also remember learning from him in person, in the lecture halls of Harvard and Cornell where he kept up his professorial duties alongside the considerable demands of his career as a public intellectual. If you've ever learned anything from Sagan, whether from the man himself or from his work, you know he didn't just want to teach humanity about outer space: he wanted to teach humanity how to think.

That goal became explicit in Astronomy 490, also known as "Critical Thinking in Science and Non-Science Context," which Sagan taught at Cornell in 1986. You can read its course materials at the Library of Congress, whose Jennifer Harbster writes that they "include mention of the important balance between openness to new ideas and skeptical engagement with those ideas in science," a point that "animates much of Carl Sagan’s work as an educator and science communicator."

The LoC offers the course's introduction and syllabus, its final exam, and Sagan's lecture notes, as well as the information he assembled to design the course in the first place, which show just how wide a range of contexts for critical thinking he had in mind.

Sagan collected examples of reporting on and public perception of phenomena related to sports playoff seriescar-loan interest rates, tobacco industry-sponsored tobacco health-risk research, and the number of helicopters that crash in Los Angeles. Harbster explains that "these notes illustrate how he wanted to use students' every day experience with things like television to prompt them to think more skeptically about how claims are made and warranted in everyday life." Though some of his examples  (the language of cigarette advertisements, for instance) may look dated now, the course's core principles have only grown more useful, and indeed necessary, with time — as Sagan, who wrote darkly of "the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media," surely knew they would.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Western Music Moves in Three and Even Four (!) Dimensional Spaces: How the Pioneering Research of Princeton Theorist Dmitri Tymoczko Helps Us Visualize Music in Radical, New Ways

Every musician has some basic sense of how math and music relate conceptually through geometry, in the circular and triadic shapes formed by clusters of notes when grouped together in chords and scales. The connections date back to the work of Pythagoras, and composers who explore and exploit those connections happen upon profound, sometimes mystical, insights. For example, the two-dimensional geometry of music finds near-religious expression in the compositional strategies of John Coltrane, who left behind diagrams of his chromatic modulation that theorists still puzzle over and find inspiring. It will be interesting to see what imaginative composers do with a theory that extends the geometry of music into three—and even four (!)—dimensions.

Pioneering Princeton University music theorist and composer Dmitri Tymoczko has made discoveries that allow us to visualize music in entirely new ways. He began with the insight that two-note chords on the piano could form a Möbius strip, as Princeton Alumni Weekly reported in 2011, a two-dimensional surface extended into three-dimensional space. (See one such Möbius strip diagram above.) “Music is not just something that can be heard, he realized. It has a shape.”

He soon saw that he could transform more complex chords the same way. Three-note chords occupy a twisted three-dimensional space, and four-note chords live in a corresponding but impossible-to-visualize four-dimensional space. In fact, it worked for any number of notes — each chord inhabited a multidimensional space that twisted back on itself in unusual ways — a non-Euclidean space that does not adhere to the classical rules of geometry. 

Tymoczko discovered that musical geometry (as Coltrane—and Einstein—had earlier intuited) has a close relationship to physics, when a physicist friend told him the multidimensional spaces he was exploring were called “orbifolds,” which had found some application “in arcane areas of string theory.” These discoveries have “physicalized” music, providing a way to “convert melodies and harmonies into movements in higher dimensional spaces.”

This work has caused “quite a buzz in Anglo-American music-theory circles,” says Princeton music historian Scott Burnham. As Tymoczko puts it in his short report "The Geometry of Musical Chords," the “orbifold” theory seems to answer a question that occupied music theorists for centuries: “how is it that Western music can satisfy harmonic and contrapuntal constraints at once?” On his website, he outlines his theory of “macroharmonic consistency,” the compositional constraints that make music sound “good.” He also introduces a software application, ChordGeometries 1.1, that creates complex visualizations of musical “orbifolds” like that you see above of Chopin supposedly moving through four-dimensions.

The theorist first published his work in a 2006 issue of Science, then followed up two years later with a paper co-written with Clifton Callendar and Ian Quinn called “Generalized Voice-Leading Spaces” (read a three-page summary here). Finally, he turned his work into a book, A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice, which explores the geometric connections between classical and modernist composition, jazz, and rock. Those connections have never been solely conceptual for Tymoczko. A longtime fan of Coltrane, as well as Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and Stravinsky, he has put his theory into practice in a number of strangely moving compositions of his own, such as The Agony of Modern Music (hear movement one above) and Strawberry Field Theory (movement one below). His compositional work is as novel-sounding as his theoretical work is brilliant: his two Science publications were the first on music theory in the magazine’s 129-year history. It’s well worth paying close attention to where his work, and that of those inspired by it, goes next.

via Princeton Alumni Weekly/@dark_shark

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Binge-Watch Carl Sagan’s Original Cosmos Series Free Online (Available for a Limited Time)

FYI. Carl Sagan's 13-episode series Cosmos originally aired in 1980 and became one of the most widely watched series in the history of American public TV. The show also won two Emmys and a Peabody Award.

Right now, you can watch the original Cosmos episodes over on Twitch.TV. From time to time, Twitch airs marathon sessions of old programs. They did Julia Child's "The French Chef" back in 2016. Now it's Sagan's turn.

Usually the videos are only available for a few days. So you might want to start your binge-watching session now. If you miss the boat, you could always pick up a copy of the show on Blu-Ray.

Twitch.TV originally aired the Cosmos series last spring as part of a Science Week celebration. Read their press release for more information.

Update: Neil deGrasse Tyson just coincidentally announced this on Twitter: "Yup. We got the band back together. Another season of Cosmos is officially real. COSMOS: Possible Worlds To air on & in a year — Spring 2019. Be there."

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via BigThink

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Hear the Hagia Sophia’s Awe-Inspiring Acoustics Get Recreated with Computer Simulations, and Let Yourself Get Transported Back to the Middle Ages

The technology used to produce, record, and process music has become ever more sophisticated and awe-inspiring, especially in the capability of software to emulate real instruments and acoustic environments. Digital emulation, or “modeling,” as it’s called, doesn’t simply mimic the sounds of guitar amplifiers, pianos, or synthesizers. At its best, it reproduces the feel of an aural experience, its textures and sonic dimensions, while also adding a seemingly infinite degree of flexibility.

When it comes to a technology called “convolution reverb,” we can virtually feel the air pressure of sound in a physical space, such that “listening in may be viewed as much as a spatial experience as it is a temporal one.” So notes Stanford’s Icons of Sound, a collaboration between the University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and the Department of Art & Art History. The researchers in this joint project have combined resources to create a performance of Byzantine chant from the 6th century CE, simulated to sound like it takes place inside a prime acoustic environment designed for this very music, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Built by the emperor Justinian between 532 and 537, when the city was Constantinople, the massive church (later mosque and now state-run museum) “has an extraordinarily large nave spreading over 70 meters in length; it is surrounded by colonnaded aisles and galleries. Marble covers the floor and walls.” Its center is “crowned by a dome glittering in gold mosaics and rising 56 meters above the ground.” The effect of the building's heavy, reflective surfaces and its architectural enormity “challenges our contemporary expectation of the intelligibility of language.”

We are accustomed to hear the spoken or sung word clearly in dry, non-reverberant spaces in order to decode the encoded message. By contrast, the wet acoustics of Hagia Sophia blur the intelligibility of the message, making words sound like emanation, emerging from the depth of the sea. 

The Icons of Sound team has reconstructed the underwater acoustics of the Hagia Sophia using convolution reverb techniques and what are called “impulse responses”—recordings of the reverberations in particular spaces, which are then loaded into software to digitally simulate the same psychoacoustics, a process known as “auralization.” CCRMA describes an impulse response as an “imprint of the space,” which is then applied to sounds recorded in other environments. Typically, the process is used in studio music production, but Icons of Sound brought it to live performance at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall last year, and made the group Cappella Romana sound like their voices had transported from the Holy Roman Empire.

“To recreate the unique sound,” writes Kat Eschner at Smithsonian, “performers sang while listening to the simulated acoustics of Hagia Sophia through earphones. Their singing was then put through the same acoustic simulator and played during the live performance through speakers in the concert hall.” As you can hear in these clips, the result is immersive and profound. One can only imagine what it must have been like live. To complete the effect, the production used “atmospheric reinforcement,” notes Stanford Live, “via projected images and lighting." The audience was “immersed in an environment where the unique interplay of music, light, art, and sacred text has the potential to induce a quasi-mystical state of revelation and wonder.”

The only sounds the researchers were able to record in the actual space of the ancient church were four popping balloons. By layering the reverberations captured in these recordings, and compensating for the different decay times inside the Bing, they were able to approximate the acoustic properties of the building. You can hear several more audio samples recorded in different places at this site. In the video above, associate professor of medieval art Bissera Pentcheva explains how and why the Hagia Sophia shapes sound and light the way it does. While purists might prefer to see a performance in the actual space, one must admit, the ability to virtually deliver a version of it to potentially any concert hall in the world is pretty cool.

via The Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Health Benefits of Drumming: Less Stress, Lower Blood Pressure, Pain Relief, and Altered States of Consciousness

Drumming—from tablas to tympani to djembes—is universal, so much so, says author Sayer Ji, that it seems “hard-wired into our biological, social and spiritual DNA.” Drumming may well be “an inborn capacity and archetypal social activity.” But many modern people have become alienated from the drum. We outsource drumming to professionals, and machines. Neuroscientists theorize that drummers may have different brains than “non-drummers”—findings that suggest the activity is confined to specially-designed people. Not so, say many scientists who believe that “drumming has some profound and holistic uses,” as Luke Sumpter writes at, “to enhance physical, mental and emotional health.”

In addition to anthropological evidence noting the centrality of drumming to human culture, abundant research has demonstrated its potential for personal healing. While drum therapy may be nothing new for cultures who have retained the practice, those who haven’t can learn group drumming easily enough with teachers like Peter Marino in the short clip above. The benefits, as studies have shown, include reduced stress and increased immunity. Group drumming may reduce anxiety and blood pressure, it may work as pain relief and boost positive emotions, and may even lead to “improved executive function” and a growth in white matter in the brains of patients with Huntington’s disease and other neurological conditions.

The evidence-based approach to group drumming’s socio-physical benefits should sway skeptics, even those likely to see drum circle therapy as some kind of hippy-dippy woo. Science-minded people without such hangups may also take an interest in studies of drumming as a “shamanic” activity that “induces specific subjective experiences.” As Michael Drake reports, one recent study “demonstrates that even a brief drumming session can double alpha brain wave activity,” which is “associated with meditation, shamanic trance, and integrative modes of consciousness.” Drumming with others “produces greater self-awareness” as well as a sense of interconnectedness, and can strengthen social bonds among adults as well as children.

While much of the writing about group drumming as therapy stresses more intangible, mystical benefits, no small amount of data suggests that the physical effects are measurable and significant. This is not to minimize the musical prowess of your favorite drummers, or to belittle the musical value of machine-made beats. But the research strongly suggests that not only is most everyone able to pick up a drum and get into a groove, but also that most everyone who does so will be happier, healthier, and more peaceful and tuned-in.

via Reset

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The First Photographs of Snowflakes: Discover the Groundbreaking Microphotography of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1885)

What kind of a blighted society turns the word “snowflake” into an insult?, I sometimes catch myself thinking, but then again, I’ve never understood why “treehugger” should offend. All irony aside, being known as a person who loves nature or resembles one of its most elegant creations should be a mark of distinction, no? At least that’s what Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley surely thought.

The Vermont farmer, self-educated naturalist, and avid photographer, was the first person to offer the following wisdom on the record, then illustrate it with hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of snowflakes, 5,000 in all:

I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.

Bentley left a considerable record—though still an insignificant sample size given the scope of the object of study. But his photographs give the impression of an infinite variety of different types, each with the same basic crystalline latticework structure. He took his first photograph of a snowflake, the first ever taken, in 1885, by adapting a microscope to a bellows camera, after years of making sketches and much trial and error.

Some great portion of this work must have been tedious and frustrating—Bentley had to hold his breath for each exposure lest he destroy the photographic subject. But it was worth the effort. Bentley, the Smithsonian informs us, “was a pioneer in ‘photomicrography,’ the photographing of very small objects.” Five hundred of his photographs now reside at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, “offered by Bentley in 1903 to protect against ‘all possibility of loss and destruction, through fire or accident.” You can see a huge digital gallery of those hundreds of photos here.

Along with U.S. Weather Bureau physicist William J. Humphreys, he published 2300 of his snowflake photographs in a monograph titled Snow Crystals. Bentley also published over 60 articles on the subject (read two of them here). Despite his contributions, he receives no mention in most histories of photomicrography. This may be due to his provincial location (he never left Jericho, VT) or his lack of scientific training and credentials, or a lack of interest in photos of snowflakes on the part of most photomicrography historians.

Or it may be because Bentley was thought to be a fraud. When a German meteorologist commissioned some images of his own and got some very different results, he accused the farmer of retouching. Bentley readily admitted it, saying, “a true scientist wishes above all to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.”

The defense is a good one. Although the “nature” Bentley’s photos show us may be a theoretical idealization, so too are the hand-rendered illustrations of most scientists throughout history (and nearly every medical diagram today). Take, for example, the psychedelic, brightly colored patterns of accomplished biologist Ernst Haeckel, who turned the micro- and macroscopic world into surreally symmetrical art in his drawings. Though he might not have said so directly, Bentley was doing something similar with a camera. Just listen to him describe his process in a 1900 issue of Harper’s:

Quick, the first flakes are coming; the couriers of the coming snow storm. Open the skylight, and directly under it place the carefully prepared blackboard, on whose ebony surface the most minute form of frozen beauty may be welcome from cloud-land. The mysteries of the upper air are about to reveal themselves, if our hands are deft and our eyes quick enough.

In the “quiet frenzy of his winter’s quest,” writes Allison Meier at Hyperallergic, he produced images of “beautiful ghosts from a winter that bristled the air over a century ago.” Learn more about Bentley’s life, work, and the Smithsonian collection in the short documentary further up, the Washington Post video above, and the Radiolab episode below, in which a breathless Latif Nasser takes us into the heart of Bentley’s origin story, and “snowflake expert and photographer Ken Libbrecht helps set the record straight.”

Real snowflakes have many imperfections, and perhaps Bentley did snow a disservice to so strenuously suggest otherwise. But the record he left us, Meier notes, “is appreciated as much as an artistic archive as a meteorological one.” He might have been a scientist when it came to technique, but Bentley was a romantic when it came to snow. His story is as fascinating as his photographs. Maybe a delightful alternative to the usual Christmas fare. There's even a children's book called... what else?...  Snowflake Bentley.

via Smithsonian/Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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